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Romance Languages:
Finding L'Amour in a Phrase Book

or, Hello, I Would Like to Practice With Your Beautiful Foreign Tongue!

by Colin Lingle

So here you are. Summer has almost unraveled around your ankles and you're no closer to finding, meeting, and enchanting that extraordinary someone you know is out there. You've tried to learn to rollerblade; you've gone to every barbecue you could smell; you've even dated blindly... or at least myopically. Still, you've got nada.

Nada. Niente. Rien.

Rien? Rien? What the hell is rien? Funny you should ask. Rien may just be your ticket out of Loner City, my friend.

If you didn't take high school French -- or if you've sworn never to cast your mind back that far -- "rien" is French for nothing.

And in this case, nothing might be something. If you have the creativity and the inclination, you can turn what used to be 50 minutes of raw hell five times a week ("je vais, tu vas, elle... uh...") into a beautiful future. Yes, it's true: becoming familiar with a foreign tongue may be the best way to become familiar with a... no, sorry, we're not going to go there. Let's say it's a great way to get dates. Here's how it works.

Roight, 'En, Innit? Eh? Cor!

One ironic truth about us self-satisfied Yanks: much as we loved kicking some redcoat ass in the Revolutionary War, the only thing we love more today is a British accent. How often have you heard a co-worker break into a misshapen impression of Masterpiece Theater's Alistair Cooke (a Brit who was a noted American history buff) or the boys of Monty Python (Brits who notably conquered America in the buff)?

How often have you heard someone -- men and women alike -- confess to swooning at the differently curved vowels and briskly breaking consonants of the Scots, the Swedes, the Irish, the Italians, and, God help us, even the French? Something about the origin of those mysterious sounds immediately makes us want to investigate... with our own lips, if necessary. Some of the sweatier rags on the magazine rack these days are actually advising men how to fake an accent to get a girl! The Big To Do would never, ever do that; we have much bigger plans for you... and you won't have to fake it.

Going Places

The logic of this notion is so obvious it's painful; almost as painful as conjugating in the subjunctive. For one thing, with an adequate hunk of foreign language under your belt, you immediately increase the number of human beings on the planet to whom you can speak. OK, that's painting with a pretty broad brush, but consider this: learning even conversational French or Spanish gives you a new kind of access to dozens countries in both hemispheres, almost all of which have better weather than wherever you live right now. The road that starts on page four of a Berlitz textbook eventually leads to a very nice beach.

And, if you've got that certain all-or-nothing personality you can actually go to the country where they speak the language you want to learn. There are schools all over the world where foreigners (note: in this case, that's you) come to be immersed in the local culture and meet friendly other foreigners. Of course, it's a short journey from "immersed" to "drowning." (Perhaps we need a better metaphor.) But, as we all know from dating them, there are those who thrive in desperate situations.

Even if you don't actually venture off of your own block, knowing your way around a svelte alien dialect sets you apart from the next Jana or Joaquin at the bar. Having the skill and savvy to drop just the right phrase at a restaurant, to compliment a visiting diplomat, or personally to ask after the health of your significant other's Zia Tonia, well, that's something that will get you noticed. For the price of a few nights in a classroom -- and, really, you were just going to watch "Cleopatra 2525" reruns anyway -- you might learn the proper usage of a verb that could change your life. Maybe you'll get the chance to reel off something like, "Dans ma vie enti└re, je n'ai jamais vu des yeux si beaux, si doux." Or maybe you'll just bump into someone and find yourself asking, "Siete persi?" If he or she is, in fact, lost... well, congratulations.

Choose Your Poisson

When deciding which tones -- dulcet or otherwise -- to study, you must choose vary carefully. In the same way that we are shaped by our native tongue, we will likewise be influenced by the new language in which we are flailing, pouting, muttering, and grasping at hazily remembered phrases. Follow your instincts, to be sure, but remember not to be surprised when you arrive where they lead you. (And remember, local dialects don't count as foreign languages.)

You may find yourself drawn to the wide and windswept gutturals of Russian, for example, or Polish. Yes, there is a rich tradition and a truthful beauty to be found in these languages... but only by trained professionals using well-established safety methods. If these languages call to you, by all means go to them, go. But dress warmly. (And find your poor, innocent throat a reliable source of lozenges; it will wonder what it's done to deserve such abuse.)

The Orient Express
Perhaps you feel compelled to master a more "exotic" language; Japanese, say, or one of the Chinese dialects. A noble impulse, but you should be prepared to wait a very long time before you can actually say, "Excuse me, I couldn't help but notice that you and I commute each morning on the same train and I was wondering if I might buy you a coffee," without badly spraining your tonsils. If there's someone you want to impress with your intimate knowledge of Asian culture, the Big To Do recommends starting with the haiku of Basho -- in translation -- and working from there. (We run a realistic shop around here, as you know.) Also, this will help you in February, of course.

French Kissing... and Spanish Kissing... and Italian Kissing
Ah, but if you want to progress il pi˛ rapidamente possibile to the romance, you must study the romance languages, most notably French, Spanish, and Italian (and, para o muito bravo, Portuguese). Not only will you have a basic familiarity with the alphabet, sentence structure, and core vocabulary, but these are also the languages that will make the various objects of your affection pass out in a swoon and, if you're careful about standing just a little bit downhill, fall right into your arms.

What We Talk About
When We Talk About Flash Cards

Naturally there are many companies all vying for the right to teach you how to get to train stations around the globe. Is it possible to choose a method that is free of frustration, perplexing questions, and bitten tongues? Probably not. Books, after all cannot teach you the subtleties of pronunciation and cassette tapes, well, they just never listen. There are interesting resources online, but again, clicking your mouse late into the night isn't really getting you out of the house, is it? However, you can choose a method that involves very attractive language teachers and that's a good place to begin.

Most big cities will have one or more language schools. Look for a reliable school in your area that has been in business for more than the time it takes to print up flyers at Kinko's. The bigger it is, the more likely it is that you will be able to find a teacher and a schedule that works for you. And the more likely that you'll be able to find a private tutor. (If you find yourself attempting to schedule ten to twelve hours a day of personal instruction, you might want to check out certain advice from Breakup Girl.)

Nearby colleges and universities may also offer extension classes. Once ensconced in a community of people all struggling with the same bilabial fricatives, you'll be surprised how quickly classes spill over into local coffee shops and restaurants.

Clenchin' and Declension

You skeptics may still be wondering why it's worth all the trouble to learn an entirely parallel set of words for everything, especially when the ones you already know work fine within a reasonable driving distance of your home. The Big To Do could go on and on about the personal gratification that one gets, the enrichment of reading, the satisfaction of seeing the subtle workings of language in action. But you're here because you want to know about the, ah, "dative case." So here's a very quick list (so quick, in fact, it only has a beginning and an end):

1. You can impress potential significant others. Not only will they be enchanted by your ability to interpret operas, they will also be deeply pleased when you can find a bathroom for them in Venice or distinguish between the entrance and exit of a Japanese parking lot (as Breakup Mom now can do, with panache). Furthermore, Breakup Dad, a renowned linguist in his own right, is willing to point out several Spanish phrases the utterance of which can get you killed in certain neighborhoods, and any paramour will certainly appreciate your ability to know enough to avoid those.

2. You can impress their parents. God forbid you should ever find yourself in, say, Paris, with your boyfriend's family. Solve one minor taxi cab squabble, secure one single bargain at the open air market, dicker with one waiter for a better table -- and get it -- and you will be, thence forward, good marriage material.

So think about it, the next time you're complaining about not being able to meet anyone new. Look around and find a place to go chat with some other intrepid young adventurers. Before long, you'll know a fabulous new group of people, a bevy of curious words and phrases, and several provocative ways to use your lips.

And, more importantly, when you do look up from those vocabulary lists, you'll find the horizon seems a lot farther away.

For a while there, Colin Lingle spoke German with a French accent and Japanese with a German accent. His French was pretty good. He last wrote about cooking to seduce.

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